Left: Brittney Griner in a defendants’ cage at a Russian court, said pictures of her teammates and friends helped her through the difficult days. (Photo by Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images) Center: When Griner’s trial in Russia started July 1, much of the world’s attention was on the basketball star. The proceedings brought attention to other prisoners abroad. (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP) Right: A teary eyed Griner addresses questions from the media Thursday, her first press conference since she was released from a Russian prison following a prisoner exchange. (Photo by John Cascella/Cronkite News)
PHOENIX – To free her mind from the 294 days of darkness, Brittney Griner found comfort in the snapshots of her life.
“When I did lose my hope, looking at photos of my family … brought my hope back,” Griner said Thursday. “Just being able to see their faces, that did it for me. In a moment where you want to give up, you look at the photos, it kind of brings you back to what you’re waiting on. Your family, your loved ones in a safe place.”
The revelation was made during the Phoenix Mercury star’s first meeting with reporters since her arrest in Russia on Feb. 17, 2022, on drug-related charges. The press conference attracted local and national media and included Gov. Katie Hobbs and Griner’s wife, Cherelle. She did not address specifics about her detainment at penal colony IK-2 in central Russia, which is known for its remote location and harsh conditions.
She was emotional at first but the playful personality that defines her also surfaced when asked about teammate Diana Taurasi.
“Who wouldn’t want to play with a walking fossil?” she asked before quickly adding, ‘She’s going to kill me.”
Griner’s arrest came after Russian authorities said they searched her luggage and found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. After her guilty plea, she was sentenced to nine years in prison. Nearly 10 months of negotiations with Russia led to a prisoner exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout.
How did Griner endure?
“Just digging deep, honestly,” she said. “You’re going to be faced with adversities throughout your life. This was a pretty big one, but I just kind of relied on my hard work. It sounds so small but dying in practice and hard workouts, you find a way to grind it out, just put your head down and keep going and keep moving forward.”
The arrest brought national attention to not only detained prisoners overseas, but to the large pay disparity between international basketball and the WNBA. Players including Taurasi, Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones all travel overseas during the offseason to play and make more money. Griner chuckled when asked if she would do it again.
“I can say for me that I’m never going overseas again to play unless it’s for my country at the Olympics. If I make that team, that would be the only time I would leave the U.S. soil to represent the USA,” Griner said. “The whole reason a lot of us go over there is the pay gap. A lot of us go over there to make an income to support our families and for ourselves.”
The moment Griner returned to the United States and picked up a basketball in her home city of San Antonio, she said she wanted to play the game she loved. It took her back to when she was a teenager not worrying about anything but basketball.
“I got some shots up. I was in some low-top Chuck’s, I was outside, I thought I was 16 again however my ankles did not like it,” Griner said. “It was good. I threw it down, just to see.” Griner added that “you’ll have to ask my wife how it felt to get dunked on.”
When Griner was detained in Russia, it felt like a fever dream. People inside the WNBA and fans from all over the United States shared their support. President Biden stated Griner was “wrongfully detained.”
Mercury players, coaches and executives frequently talked about how Griner was their sister, daughter, wife and committed member of the community. During 2022 training camp, Mercury all-WNBA point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith echoed a sentiment that stuck with the team throughout the season.
“It’s hard and it sucks and you guys can keep asking us. It’s emotional to deal with, it’s triggering,” Diggins-Smith said. “But we love our sister, we miss our sister, we’re going to continue to play in her honor.”
The WNBA reacted, too. Sentiments flew in from Seattle, Chicago, New York and beyond as all 12 teams put the same decal on their respective courts: BG 42. Mercury players were asked about Griner any time information came out about the player’s whereabouts.
Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard often reiterated the team’s belief that Griner was wrongfully detained. The former Las Vegas Aces assistant coach mentioned in almost every media session the amount of days that had passed since Griner’s detainment. Before the Mercury took a road trip to play the Washington Mystics in 2022, Nygaard had a simple explanation for her persistence on the subject.
“We can never forget that no matter what the result of the game was, that should be the lead of every story that’s covered of this league because it’s unacceptable,” Nygaard said. “I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a lot going on in D.C. when we get there but it’s 113 days too many. So I just want to make sure we keep that in the front of our minds.”
When the team landed in the nation’s capital, they met with Arizona Rep. Greg Stanton. He was one of the first politicians in the country to propose bipartisan legislation regarding Griner’s release. Stanton also held the “Bring BG home rally” at the Footprint Center in early July.
The team missed Griner’s jovial personality. Nygaard said after the Mercury played the Indiana Fever in the 2021 season, Griner and the team were riding scooters around downtown Indianapolis.
“Every time we put on that Phoenix Mercury gear and BG isn’t with us, we feel that. As we come into a new city, it becomes a new story in that city but it is a story with us every single day so our players are carrying that with them everywhere they go,” Nygaard said. “It is a heavy burden. I don’t know anyone who has been in this position before as a team.”
It wasn’t just off the court that Griner made a difference, it was on it as well. In the 2021 season, Griner averaged 20.5 points, a career-high 9.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.9 blocks. When the two-time Olympian was on the floor that season, her team was first in blocks (5.2), second in free throw attempts (19.4) and third in rebounds (36.2).
When Griner was officially sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony, on Aug. 4, Diggins-Smith spoke with emotion postgame, holding back tears with what her teammate Diamond DeShields called “a heavy heart.”
“It’s heavy, it’s heavy y’all. Y’all asking if these questions don’t take away from our trauma. It just adds to our trauma. So we can break down and cry in front of y’all so you can see how we feel,” Diggins-Smith said. I don’t know what else you want me to say about it. This is our sister. This isn’t anything we’re politicizing. This is a human being and our real-life friend. So imagine if your real-life sister or real-life friend is out there. Now I don’t expect everybody to give a damn, but we really do.”
A midseason departure by then-Mercury center Tina Charles, a season-ending quad injury to Taurasi and Diggins-Smith leaving the team due to personal reasons with four games remaining on the schedule added to a dark season.
Phoenix squeaked into the playoffs as the eighth seed, playing the eventual WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces. Although the Mercury were swept, recognition poured in from across the sports globe.
People including ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe and University of South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley praised the team for its resilience.
As a daunting season came to a close, one Friday morning gave relief to the pain, suffering and uncertainty. On Dec. 9, Griner came home from Russia in a prisoner exchange with Bout. The nearly 18-hour flight with United States officials was full of joy and enthusiasm, CBS News reported.
Mercury forward Sophie Cunningham was asleep in her Missouri home when she heard the news of Griner’s return. A few hours later, she woke up and was bombarded with more information.
“I had about 200 text messages and it was all about BG. I’m not really much of an emotional, crying person but when I saw that, I definitely broke down and it still gives me the chills,” Cunningham said to the media in early March.
“I can still picture exactly where I was, the picture of her and Cherelle (Griner) hugging Vince (Kozar), and Jim (Pitman) is just surreal. There’s so much behind the scenes that people just don’t realize. It just makes you first of all very grateful and it makes you just want to give her a big hug and never let her go.”
For Mercury guard Shey Peddy, the news couldn’t have come at a better time. Peddy ruptured her Achilles in August against the Las Vegas Aces in the playoffs and is rehabilitating the injury. When Peddy heard the news of Griner’s return, she described during the same March press conference that she felt a sense of normalcy.
“As far as BG being back, it feels amazing. Sophie’s here, Dee is here, we all just kind of working out together and watching everyone get going,” Peddy said.
Las Vegas Aces team president Nikki Fargas expressed a moment of clarity and gratitude the moment she found out that Griner was coming home.
“Just thankful for her safe return,” she said. “Thankful for the Lord for getting her back. This young lady, if you know Brittney, if you get a chance to meet Brittney Griner, she is a compassionate person. She has a heart of gold. She loves people, she loves this game. She’s meant so much to so many and brought so much joy to this game and to people.”
Fargas also credits the WNBA as a whole for putting this issue on the map for the world to see.
“We were all talking about it and keeping her spirits up through our power of prayer and our power of using our platforms. We were hoping that would give her that extra ‘let me get up today,’ Fargas said.
“So I’m a huge Brittney Griner fan for so many reasons outside of basketball, too. So, just glad that she’s home with her family and loved ones. Waking up to that news, there were a lot of people who got on their knees. And there were tears of joy, tears of joy.”
Like Fargas, Mercury assistant general manager Monica Wright Rogers also shed tears of joy surrounding the news of the franchise’s all-time blocks leader returning to the United States.
“I cried tears of joy,” Wright Rogers said. “Just feeling relieved that she was going to be able to sleep in her own bed, be with her family and have a sense of normalcy again.”
Griner’s production on the court is valuable to the team, but her character is equally important, teammates say. Peddy explained the feeling of having her sister back on the hardwood for the Mercury upcoming season.
“It’s just a personality every time she walks in the gym, she just smiles and we joke a lot. It just feels different, a different vibe or in the gym. It just feels good to have her walk in and no longer have to be ‘Free BG’ or get updates of what may have been happening when she was detained,” Peddy said.
“To have her back here and know that she’s going to be here for the season, and that there’s going to be a lot of positivity surrounding our team this year. So that’s going to really feel good.”
With 31 replacement contracts signed to players on the Mercury last season, the camaraderie looks to materialize less than a month from the season opener. One thing that Phoenix found going forward was the 3 -point shot post-all-star break, as the team was first in 3-pointers attempted (27.7) and third in 3-point makes (9.3).
But on Thursday, numbers weren’t the dominating theme. Griner’s presence was, as the Mercury prepare to embark on a season with a player who survived a trying ordeal.